If you missed Part 1, that’s clickable here: Productception Part 1
The Lucky Star (2002) advert that Walter Campbell brought into existence is one of my favourites ( take a look for yourself), and intrigued by the creative process, the spark of ideas and what they ignite, I approached one of the true creative legends of advertising to discover more. A part of the beauty of creativity is the origins of the idea: often from seemingly ‘throwaway’ moments that others might not even blink at. But what they can lead to given the endeavour to do so is really incredible.
OK, never mind the advert, I feel lucky to have had the in-depth response from Walter as below which is fittingly as compelling and driving as the Lucky Star commercial – the movie of which I’d still love to see. Enjoy.
(Fionn Grant to Walter Campbell):
Would you be kind enough to give a reflection on the advert and how it came into existence? (I don’t misquote) And why do you think there aren’t more clever under the radar creations like Lucky Star?
This brief was all about the SL500’s remarkable blend of sleek refinement and dynamism. The intoxicating fusion of luxury and sporting performance resulted from the Mercedes design team setting out to create an icon. Now that audacity seems like a story in itself, but it can be quite hard to define without becoming grandiose, and it can become a spark that doesn’t truly resonate. So I aimed to punch a hole through that surface persona and make something that resonated on an emotional level. I wanted to give the icon a little touch of the mythical so that the work I made would be ‘IN’ the process of making this car hyper-cool rather than ‘ON’ it. The background to this is that for TV and cinema adverts, part of my brief to the directors would always mean framing how I wanted my idea to feel. I’d have a sense of the tone, the kind of energy I wanted to bring to bear, and I’d often include pieces of film reference or news footage for specific moments in the story as I wanted to tell it. But I’d also be saying that I wanted to supersede the references I had. I’d be saying things like, I want this moment or this spot to feel more exciting than the actual films it is going to run next to. I’d be saying let’s investigate the mood around this sort of story. The aim was always to do it at a level others couldn’t.
That ambition or mood would become something I’d set my course by. But in saying these things, I’d often be wondering if it was possible to get that condensed story to hold the depth of that possibility that felt more significant than a film. The idea I was working toward was a suggested narrative that was complete and yet created a bigger and almost as complete a longer story in the audience’s mind. It was the reverse of product placement in advertising; this idea was about placing a whole film narrative in an advert at a level that the audience fully expects to be fulfilled. So I had started to think along the lines of a story about the process of the creation of this fantastic car? The audacity of setting out to make such an exceptional car seemed likely to be authentic, and I thought it might become something with a documentary feel? I remember thinking there’d be some great designers that had combined to make this masterpiece or perhaps a vendetta between designers that had driven them to be more and more daring. As I looked into the details of the car, they did have those very cool design histories, but the problem was that there was so much that was cool about the SL500 that I couldn’t land on a focused perspective for it. It was hard to see the wood for the trees. That one enduring story behind the creation of the car was hard to condense into a tight narrative. I could have made a cool hour-long documentary for sure, but they wanted a cool advert.
I’d been asking to see the SL500, and Mercedes had told me that there might be one in the UK in a few weeks, but that was way after I was meant to present my idea. Then a strange thing happened; I was heading across town to a meeting about something else, and I spotted this very cool-looking Mercedes parked outside one of London’s cool hotels. I parked and went back to have a look. As I approached, I realized this was actually the SL500. I was thinking, Wow! how come they didn’t tell me it was in town? But then I was quickly thinking about how good it looked, and that it would be very cool to shoot. As I walked toward it, I wasn’t really thinking beyond that, but when I was about eleven feet away from it, I noticed this bloke approaching from the other direction. He was already as hypnotized by the car; he was about 30 and was pushing a kid in a buggy and trailing another child of about five along with a gentle impatience. He steered them all toward the SL500, calming them both to buy this moment of indulgence. You could see this was the high-point of his morning. He was taking it all in, and when he got beside the windows, he was leaning in and peering into the windows and shaking his head in admiration. I became fascinated by his visceral and emotional response. But it was I passed him that he just let out a sort of gasp of appreciation for the car and whoever might own it. He said: ‘Lucky Bastard!’ Just that and as he said, it thought, That is it!
You have to be Lucky to own this car, and owning it is a sign that you are on some kind of mystical beam, that you are getting something right, that you are born under a ‘Lucky Star.’ I thought now that is something that feels like it could be a feature and could be condensed.
Then I drilled into the notion, thought about the idea of someone so lucky they got everything right. One of the first images I thought of was the planets aligning. I was thinking of someone who made great calls and smart moves. I remembered reading about a dude in NYC, in the ’40s, I think it was, who could tell which horse would win a race simply by looking at its face. The idea of someone who had this sixth sense or instinct or advanced knowledge became part of the feeling I was looking for. I started to think about casting. I could see this character with this cool life that was locked into making all these smart calls. And I felt what that said about the car as one of his ‘bang-on calls’ really added up in a beautifully assertive and assumptive way. The SL500 was the car that the guy who knows everything drives. It doesn’t get much better than that. It was saying something that you aren’t really allowed to say in an advert: it inferred the.
The challenge was to make this idea as cogent, real, and compelling as an excellent trailer could be. I knew I had to get a serious director and felt like the sort of director who might get a storyline like this. Michael Mann was really my first solid thought, he felt too big and too cool to do an advert, and that made him perfect for this. Then I thought who’d be the most relaxed person to play this ‘Lucky Bastard,’ and Benicio del Toro felt perfect.
It also felt like it would be impossible to get him in an advert at that time. But then I thought if Michael Mann was into it, he might be persuadable. So with all this, myself and Peter Mead, (That’s the MEAD in AMV-BBDO, he set this whole Mercedes project in motion) went to see the client and we made this pitch to make an advert that wasn’t an advert but a trailer for a film that didn’t exist. And we framed that it would have no overt Mercedes Branding on it, and we’d keep the fact that it wasn’t a real trailer secret for as long as possible and that we needed to get people like Michael Mann and Benicio del Toro involved because they were the sort of people who wouldn’t make an advert. And so when we’d been through it all, the client who was a brilliant bloke said: So if we can’t get Michael Mann and Benicio del Toro, we shouldn’t make it right ?! Yes, exactly! said Peter. And with that level of confidence in place. Everybody smiled.
The sudden reality that now I had to land Michael Mann was daunting, but everyone was clear. It was to be done at the right level or not at all. It took a while to get hold of Michael Mann. I sat up through the night for a couple of weeks as they tried to find a window in his shooting schedule. I ended up talking to him at 3 in the morning, and he was at a big Boxing event that I just happened to be watching on telly. We chatted a bit about boxing, and as I knew a bit about one of the boxers on the card, he got the impression I knew a lot more about boxing than I do. His only two real questions were: Are you set on Benicio for this? And is it agreed with everyone there will be no logo on the end of the spot? I said why I thought Benicio was right: He’s effortlessly assured and has that vibe around him that feels almost fated. Mann said, Good, I think Benicio is impressive on all fronts, and I really want to work with him. Michael Mann and his people were like a machine. From location finding to stunt coordination on a level I couldn’t believe, their whole process was incredible. From his first AD (Art Director), Michael Waxman, to people like Gusmano Cesarettie, Mann’s Visual Consultant, the ambition was always to excel. The love that the LA Police Department and the City of LA have for him because of MIAMI VICE meant he could do things that other directors wouldn’t be permitted to do. For example, he somehow managed to get permission for a chopper to fly at 300 feet above the city when the limit for the Police themselves is 500 feet. Stuff like that just added up on every level, and of course, he added layers of Sci-fi thinking to the story like the whole hidden files strand and the molecular breakdown of places that Benicio’s character had been. All that energy combined with the deft producers on our side of the process, Aris McGarry and Natale Bright, things that seemed impossible at first suddenly got done. It was a very remarkable team.
One of the biggest challenges turned out to be getting the spot to run during the trailers, but what saved us with this barrier was that the film had no brand logo or overt brand claims. The next issue was holding off the PR people, who were great, but so good they had several quality opportunities to break the story in big ways. In the end, we held off past a couple of tempting publicity windows, and we broke the story on News At Ten a couple of months after the trailer ran. The amazing thing was that I had two cuts of the film, which had gone into trailers and on-line. One was a minute long, and the other was 2:30. I was asked to do a cut down of the one-minute version that News At Ten might play and would still have cool car footage in it. My response was to send them the 2:30 – I said these guys are used to cutting these things in a way that makes sense to the story, and they might use more if they have it. They ended up playing nearly all of the 2:30 version. That’s air-time you just can’t buy, and the publicity once the story broke topped a million pounds worth in paid-for media in no time. The thing I loved was that Odeon Cinemas told us that three years later, they were still getting calls with people asking when or where they could see ‘Lucky Star’. People’s desire to see it grew with each new success Benicio and Michael Mann had. Here’s a sort of mini-making of thing that happened around the publicity.